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The Quiet American

Phillip Noyce, USA/Australia, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: March 9, 2003

By Laurence Station

The Quiet American, Graham Greene's 1955 novel about America's burgeoning role in the French-Vietnamese conflict (which ultimately led to France's withdrawal and American troops being sent in a decade later), possesses a weary, unmistakably British viewpoint. Greene, after all, lived through the events described in the book. Using journalist Thomas Fowler as his mouthpiece, Greene sets about wrestling with thorny matters of the heart (the married Fowler's relationship with a beautiful young Vietnamese woman named Phuong) and the signature Greene calling card: Guilt. (Fowler suppresses his guilt over his infidelities, and his decidedly apolitical interest in Indo-Chinese affairs, via an opium addiction.) And the author's first-person narration adds a sensual murkiness to the events Fowler witnesses. By contrast, Philip Noyce's film adaptation (the second, after Joseph Mankiewicz's decidedly pro-American 1958 version offers an omniscient -- albeit slightly restricted -- overview of the proceedings, as we get to see beyond Fowler's opium-slanted worldview. Unfortunately, such clarity only serves to undermine the insinuatory power of the novel, leaving little to debate or question, as everything is presented on a silver platter, far too neat and tidy.

Noyce's film may deviate from Greene's text in order to show us more than Fowler ever knew, but otherwise he follows the novel fairly closely. Greene didn't have all the answers, and he certainly had no clue as to the heights to which America's involvement in the conflict would escalate. He was part of an old colonialist empire observing the travails of a fellow colonial power and doing his best to stay out of the way. The Quiet American deals with Fowler struggling to keep the status quo -- his mistress, his cushy reporting post, his neutral bearing -- against America's meddling in affairs in which he clearly felt the young nation had no business interfering. America, in Greene's tale, is rather obviously represented by square-jawed Alden Pyle, who unlike Fowler has come to Vietnam seeking involvement, determined to stop the communists and toss out the French -- essentially hoping to bring democracy to a land and a people that have never known such freedoms. And when Pyle becomes involved with the beautiful Phuong, it's clear that Greene intends for the resulting triangle to echo the characters' place in geopolitical history, with an aging colonialist and a brash young upstart wrestling vigorously for the affections of an exotic and alluring flower.

Michael Caine is masterful as Fowler, summoning the right amount of resigned apathy and fierce jealously over losing Phuong (beautiful cipher Do Thi Hai Yen) to the too earnest, overeager Pyle (Brendan Fraser, perfectly suited to a role that fits his limited range). Despite contending for Phuong's affections, Fowler and Pyle form a close bond, one formed mainly of enduring a series of adventures together (huddled in a bunker during battle; getting stranded on a dangerous road after dark, dodging communist troops). Fowler, who initially views Pyle as an honest, if overly naive, American, soon comes to suspect that his rival is not what he seems, especially when a series of terrorist bombings occurs within Saigon. (Because of these scenes, the film, originally slated for a Fall 2001 release, was shelved after the events of September 11th.) That Fowler must ultimately take action, not only to assuage his guilty conscience but to remove his romantic rival from the picture, is never in doubt, and it's in the depiction of this growing crisis of conscience that the film excels. Noyce ably shows us Fowler in conflict with his choices and grudgingly assessing the bloody aftermath. Fowler understands that his way of life will soon end, but he can't help doing whatever he can to hold on to the small piece of happiness he's carved out for himself abroad.

Regrettably, the drug angle, a key ingredient of Greene's novel, is barely touched upon. Fowler smokes opium as casually as one might toke on a cigarette. And, naturally, the sad legacy of America's deployment of ground troops in Southeast Asia is crammed down our throats. The lack of ambiguity, of wondering who's working for whom, hurts the film's credibility, as if Noyce and the screenwriters didn't trust the audience to figure out the significance of Pyle's fate or the futile outcome of France's attempt to remain in power. But Noyce nonetheless directs with a sure hand, moving through the interiors and exteriors of Saigon with confident ease, aided by Christopher Doyle's crisp, energetic photography and Craig Armstrong's appropriate East-meets-West score. The Quiet American, then, is a well crafted if dumbed down interpretation of Greene's themes and ideas, which are given far greater depth on the printed page. Like the beautiful Phuong, it's easy on the eyes. Just don't expect any profound insights to result from close observation.

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